Marketing strategy

Steve Jobs stole his best idea from Nike’s brilliant 2-word marketing strategy

Steve Jobs stole his best idea from Nike's brilliant 2-word marketing strategy

There’s a great podcast series from Vox Media called Land of the Giants. Over the past few years, he’s covered Google, Netflix, and Amazon. This year, Peter Kafka talks about Appleand in one of the first episodes he remembers a Steve Jobs speech shortly after returning to Apple in 1997. Jobs wasn’t even CEO at the time, but he was talk to a salaried town hall.

During it, he talked about make Apple a great brand. It was something he was passionate about because he talked about other big brands, including Nike. I forgot the quote, but it’s worth a look. Here is what Jobs said:

Nike sells a commodity, they sell shoes. And yet, when you think of Nike, you feel something different from a shoe company. In their ads, as you know, they never talk about the product, they never talk about their air soles, how much better they are than Reebok’s air soles. What does Nike do in its advertising? They honor great athletes and they honor great sportsmen. That’s what it’s about.

Technically, Jobs used seven words to highlight it, saying “they never talk about the product”, but I think you can sum it up with just two: “no products”.

It’s strange to think of a marketing strategy built around those two words. It’s even weirder to think that Apple wanted to copy that strategy, since it was also about selling, you know, products.

Think about it: Nike sells shoes, one of the most basic commodities. It does so, however, by painting a picture of a desirable future. Its marketing is never about the products, it’s about the people – the everyday heroes, champions and athletes who strive to perform at their best.

Jobs wanted Apple to do the same. As he spoke to Apple employees, the company was in a much different place. It was before the iPhone, before the iPad and even before the iPod or the iMac. Jobs had just returned to the company a decade after being kicked out, and Apple – by all accounts – had gone astray. He was seriously losing the home PC battle and was running out of ideas and money. His brand has also suffered.

Jobs’ words were ambitious. He wanted to paint a picture of a desirable future for the company, but in doing so he highlighted one of the most powerful marketing strategies for connecting with customers. Ironically, it’s the same thing: aspiration. Jobs described Apple as an ambitious brand, just like Nike.

This was the heart of the “Think Different” advertising campaign. It celebrated the creative or, as the famous TV ad called it, the “crazy.”

The ad was made up of a series of images of visionaries and historical figures such as Gandhi, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein and Amelia Earhart. (The TV version was narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, but the version told by Jobs himself worth the detour.)

The campaign defined what Apple wanted to be, not to mention the products at all. A series of photos features black-and-white photographs of many of the same iconic characters, complete with the Apple logo and “Think Different” tagline.

It wasn’t about products, it was an aspiration. It was a celebration of people – the kind of people Apple wanted to associate its brand with and the kind of people its audience wanted to be associated with.

This campaign transformed Apple from a company that mainly made boring beige computers, to one that, in just a few months, would introduce the iMac. Back then, the iMac wasn’t the best or most expensive computer you could buy, but it was the most ambitious.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the company introduced the iPod, which transformed the way we listen to music. Then, a few years later, the iPhone changed just about everything about how we interact with computers and each other. A year later, Apple released the MacBook Air, which redefined the look and feel of almost any laptop. This is still true today, some 13 years later.

Apple finally went beyond “Think Different”, but the strategy is the same. Ads for the iPod featured colorful silhouettes of dancers with iconic white headphones dangling from their ears. iPhone ads feature people taking photos and capturing videos of the things that interest them most.

Of course, they are products, but they are no less ambitious. What I mean is that Steve Jobs’ biggest idea was that Apple should be an ambitious company – which remains true today. It all started with an unconventional, yet brilliant, two-word strategy from Nike.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.